How (Not) to Choose Washington's Next Juvenile Justice Chief

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

As Congress neared adjournment for the August recess, a little noticed bill, S. 679, passed the House and was signed into law by President Obama on August 10.

Approved by wide margins in the Senate and House, S. 679 removes the requirement for the Senate to give “advice and consent” for confirmation for the Administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and some 170 other appointments.

That essentially means that the Administration will not have to vet potential OJJDP candidates with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and there will be no public hearing or vote by the committee before the appointment is made.

In an August 2nd interview with The Crime Report, Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs, said, “Few people outside the Beltway care whether some Washington official is Senate-confirmed or not.”

I challenge that assumption. Here's why:

First, the OJJDP Administrator is too important to the well-being and success of court-involved youth throughout the country to be marginalized.

After all, OJJDP is the leading federal agency responsible for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention issues. Created under the landmark Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974, the OJJDP plays a vital role in assisting state and local governments in addressing juvenile delinquency through federal grants, research and guidance.

For nearly 40 years, the OJJDP has helped states to create and sustain effective approaches to reduce juvenile delinquency, and develop programs that are cost-effective, improve public safety and treat court-involved youth appropriately.

The stature associated with the post diminishes with the removal of the Senate confirmation. With no congressional oversight on appointments, the post could end up in the hands of a bureaucrat—or worse, a political hack without any background in juvenile justice.

Isn't juvenile justice a high enough priority to deserve a recognized leadership role in the federal government with a seasoned expert whom the U.S. Senate has confirmed with input of leaders in the field?

Second, the OJJDP Administrator articulates a national juvenile justice agenda that is based on research on what works and what doesn't, as well as on adolescent development. He or she helps states to utilize the research, and implement best practices in reforming their juvenile justice systems.

Just this week, the National Conference of State Legislatures showcased reforms all over the county and the movement towards more rehabilitative and research informed approaches. With a vetting process, advocates, scholars and other experts would have the opportunity to be consulted.

Through our elected officials, we could ensure that Senators ask key questions about the national agenda, about implementing field-wide priorities on the key issues, and about crafting policies that would support those efforts.

Do we really want someone in this role who has not clearly spelled out what they would do before being confirmed for the job?

Third, the OJJDP Administrator advocates for adequate funding appropriations from Congress for juvenile justice. Unfortunately, for more than a decade, federal juvenile justice funding has declined dramatically.

This year is no exception.

If the U.S. House of Representatives has its way, federal juvenile justice programs will only receive less than $40 million for the entire country. The advice and consent process would facilitate the connection between the prospective OJJDP Administrator and senators who are key to ensuring OJJDP carries out its responsibilities.

Ultimately a public process would keep juvenile justice on the agenda of the Senate. Do we really want juvenile justice to be out of sight and therefore out of mind of the Senate?

Finally, the OJJDP Administrator's role is to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of the main federal piece of juvenile justice legislation, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

Since 1974, the JJDPA has provided critical federal funding to states to comply with a set of core requirements designed to protect children and meet their unique needs. While successful, the JJDPA could be substantially strengthened to address more of the pressing needs in the juvenile justice field.

Such needs include the overuse of incarceration, reducing disparities (not just counting over representation) and closing the loopholes that allow some status offenders to be detained and some youth to be placed in adult jails despite the original intentions of the law.

The JJDPA hasn't been updated in more than a decade; and it continues to languish, with neither the House nor Senate introducing reauthorization bills this session.

Since the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the JJDPA, don't we want an OJJDP Administrator that has presented a field informed agenda for the JJDPA in front of them?

A confirmation process would do just that.

Ultimately removing the advice and consent provision won’t just remove the U.S. Senate, but the juvenile justice field, from a meaningful role in the process for the first time in 40 years.

Left without a chair now that the music has stopped, we have to ask ourselves whether we want a say.

I believe we do.

The more than two million youth and their families affected by the justice system deserve no less.

Liz Ryan is President & CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, based in Wash. DC. She welcomes comments from readers.

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